Immortal Fire (The Red Winter Trilogy Book 3) by Annette Marie


  “Wait,” Shiro said, folding his arms. “Your attack on the shrine caused them to move the spear?”

  “Your daitengu talked about winning treasures,” Emi said to Yumei, wishing she could peer directly into his memories. “When you destroyed the shrine, did you take the spear?”

  Almost in unison, Shiro and Susano pivoted to face Yumei.

  “I took no spoils,” he answered. “Saburo claimed the most valuable treasures for herself.”

  “But you killed her. Right after the attack on the shrine.”

  “That was days later. Saburo had already removed her prizes so the other daitengu could not poach them.”

  “If she took it,” Emi said, “then it’s possible Izanagi doesn’t know where the spear is.”

  “Izanami would not have acted unless she knew Nuboko was within reach,” Susano argued. “She would not leave such a crucial element of her plan to chance.”

  “If Saburo—this is one of your daitengu, I assume?” Shiro asked Yumei. “If Saburo took the spear, Izanagi probably lost track of it for a while, but I bet he and Izanami have since found it and can take it back whenever they’re ready. And now that Izanagi knows we’re after the spear too, he’ll claim it immediately.”

  “Do you know where to find Saburo?” Susano asked Yumei.

  “Her home is east of mine. North of here.”

  Shiro’s gaze swept over them. “Then we go now, and hope we can reach her before Izanagi does.”

  The storm dragon flew through the clouds. Perched on his back with Shiro in front of her and Yumei behind her, Emi gripped his mane tightly. She was not at all a fan of riding the dragon and would have much preferred he carried her safely in his claws—where her strength and reflexes weren’t required to keep her in place. Shiro and Yumei didn’t like being carried, though, so she was stuck clinging desperately to the dragon’s back as he undulated through the sky.

  The hot sun pounded on top of Emi’s head, a slight relief from the icy wind. Susano sped north, occasionally dipping below the partial cloud cover to check their progress. Though flight was the fastest way to reach Saburo’s home—with the exception of Yumei’s teleportation magic—they had been airborne for almost thirty minutes already. How quickly could Izanagi reach Saburo?

  She hunched under the onslaught of arctic wind as guilt squirmed in her gut. This was her fault. If she hadn’t dropped the book, allowing the kamigakari to recognize it, Izanagi wouldn’t have descended and they wouldn’t be rushing to beat him to the unsuspecting daitengu.

  The dragon plummeted a hundred feet in a stomach-twisting drop. As they emerged from the fog, a vista of mountains in a collage of white, brown, and green stretched as far as she could see.

  “How much farther?” Shiro called to Yumei.

  The Tengu leaned sideways to look down, casually unconcerned, while her head swam at the mere sight of him tilting toward the lethal drop.

  “A few more miles,” he replied. “I do not know the exact location of her residence.”

  “When’s the last time you were here?”

  “Eight hundred years? A thousand?” Yumei shrugged. “A very long time ago.”

  “How do you even know she’s there, then?” Shiro demanded.

  “Our territories border each other. My karasu and hers are well acquainted.”

  Emi glanced back at him. “Have you seen her at all since you … since she died?”

  His expression hardened. “Once.”

  “When?”

  When Yumei didn’t answer, Shiro twisted around and Emi clutched his waist in panic. “Spit it out, Tengu. We need to know what we’re getting into.”

  “She sought me out a few decades after I revived, wanting to know if I would pardon her. I would not.”

  “Then what?”

  “Nothing. I promised to slay her if she approached me again.”

  “Do you know if—”

  The dragon jerked his head up, almost throwing off his passengers. Emi squeezed Shiro tightly as he swore.

  “Do you feel that?” he exclaimed.

  “Feel what?” Emi asked.

  “Ripples,” he said tensely. “Ripples of magic—waves in the realm itself?”

  Yumei reached past her and grabbed Shiro’s arm, pulling him around. “Is the spear in motion?”

  Understanding flashed across Shiro’s face. Susano snarled and dove, again almost dislodging his passengers. He sped downward, gaining speed, and leveled off above the treetops. Forests spread through the valleys, and dark creeks and streams cut through the snow.

  Emi clung to his back, her heart hammering. The spear was in motion. Had Izanagi reached Saburo? Were they too late?

  As the horizon rolled closer, a streak of smoke rose from a distant valley. The dragon sped toward it and the clouds thickened and churned, darkening the sky.

  When they neared the rising column of smoke, Susano slowed and descended with caution. He spun a circle around the area and as the haze shifted, Emi saw the charred remains of dozens of trees and what might have been a small wooden farmhouse. The dragon landed among the smoking ruins.

  Yumei jumped down and strode toward the destroyed house. Grabbing Emi around the waist, Shiro leaped off the dragon as well. Together, he and Yumei started pulling debris aside. Susano raised his head, nostrils flaring and sapphire eyes wary.

  Emi watched, dread gathering in her ribcage as she pressed a hand to her mouth. All around the clearing, the burnt corpses of dead crows littered the ground. Dozens of them.

  “No body,” Shiro said, straightening. “I can’t smell any blood.”

  “Izanagi’s victims rarely bleed,” Yumei replied flatly.

  “The spear is still moving.”

  “Izanagi is no doubt taking his prize back to—”

  “Caw caw!”

  In a frenzied racket, three crows hurtled out of the trees. They sped to Yumei and swarmed him, wings thrashing as they squawked in obvious terror and grief. He extended an arm and they landed on it, jostling one another as they cried loudly.

  “Saburo did not die here,” Yumei said, turning to Shiro. “She fled.”

  “Leaving the spear for Izanagi?”

  “Unlikely, since Izanagi pursued her. He would not bother to hunt her otherwise.”

  Susano growled and scraped at the ground with huge talons.

  “Where would she flee?” Shiro asked. “Where would she run with Izanagi on her tail?”

  “To me.” Yumei’s upper lip curled in disgust as he pointed to a line of mountains. “My home is not far to west. She knows that even if I am not moved to protect her, I would still challenge Izanagi’s invasion.”

  He cast his arm up, launching the crows back into the air. Red light ignited over him as shadows coiled out of the trees. “I can reach her first.”

  “Wait,” Shiro said urgently. “Izanagi probably isn’t far behind her.”

  Magic crackled over Yumei. “Then hope he is far enough.”

  With a flash of red power and writhing darkness, he vanished. Shiro swore again. Whirling, he scooped Emi up in one arm and lunged toward Susano. He grabbed a handful of the dragon’s mane and Susano sprang into the sky, heading west.

  “As fast as you can, Susano,” Shiro growled as he swung them onto the dragon’s back. “The last time Yumei died, he didn’t revive for two centuries. If Izanagi kills him again, I doubt he’ll come back at all.”

  Emi took a double handful of the dragon’s mane and didn’t mention that Shiro’s arm was still around her. His closeness comforted her as she prayed they could reach Yumei before Izanagi. If the Prince of Shadows met the sun god in battle, there could only be one victor.

  Chapter 17

  Time raced faster than the forest rushing by below them. Susano soared above the mountains, chasing each peak only for another to rise in their path.

  Wisps of rising smoke beckoned in the distance. As they closed in on the wide valley sprawled between summits and the smoke thickened into dense c
oils, Susano swept toward an oblong clearing in the trees. They plunged into the acrid, blinding smoke, and Susano reared back, stopping so quickly she was thrown forward. Shiro grabbed her and pulled her back into him.

  From out of the haze, she saw what had stopped Susano.

  In the center of the clearing, dark smoke poured from the shattered stump of a familiar tree. The colossal trunk had cleaved a swath through the forest in its fall, the broken, tangled branches sticking out like agonized limbs.

  Staring at the fallen tree, Emi remembered first seeing the immense oak. She remembered climbing it with Yumei standing high in the branches, watching her. She remembered him opening the ethereal doorway in the bark that led to his home within.

  What had happened?

  Susano landed, the brittle leaf litter crunching under his claws. Shiro’s arm clamped more tightly around her middle, and he slid off the dragon’s back. Not a spot of snow remained, the ground as dry as early autumn. Her gaze flashed from the charred spruce trees nearby, their needles brown and crumbling, to the remains of the great oak, its stump split, blackened, and still burning.

  Not dry, she realized, but baked. Everything in sight had been scorched as though ten suns had beat down upon the land instead of one. Clearly, Izanagi had already arrived.

  “Nuboko isn’t moving anymore,” Shiro told them. “I can’t tell where it is.”

  Susano studied the woods, curved fangs bared.

  “Where is Yumei?” Emi whispered, wrapping her arms around herself. The atmosphere shivered and writhed as though an unseen presence—something alien and enraged—lurked at the edge of her senses.

  “Nearby … I think.”

  The sky went dark. Shadows surged over the valley, thickening and twisting. Chill air hissed all around them, crackling with power, and red streaked beneath the clouds like northern lights.

  Far away in the trees, golden radiance erupted. It shone brighter and brighter, pushing back the darkness. Shoving Emi behind him, Shiro whirled toward the light. Susano snarled, his enormous claws scoring the earth.

  In the distance, Izanagi strode through the woods, surrounded by a swirling sphere of blinding light. He didn’t alter his path for obstacles. The trees in front of him disintegrated into gray ash as soon as the spinning sphere touched them. He walked through the woods, destroying everything around him without raising a hand.

  He swiveled his head as though searching for something, then cocked it to one side. The rotating sphere expanded, tearing through not only the trees, but also the unnatural darkness.

  As the light brightened and heat washed over Emi in a suffocating wave, the darkness condensed. A dozen yards in front of Izanagi, giant wings took shape from the shadows. Crimson runes danced over the great raven. He was more shadow than flesh, darkness given life. His silver eyes were all that seemed truly solid.

  From the shadows, gold glinted. Two glowing javelins protruded from Yumei’s body, almost obscured by his shadowy form. Facing Izanagi across the distance between them, the raven spread his wings to their full span and opened his beak, screaming his fury and challenge.

  Thunder rumbled through the sky. Susano surged toward Izanagi and Yumei as lightning lit the gaps in his scales and crackled over his body. Izanagi turned to the approaching dragon, that sphere of solar heat still spinning around him.

  Terror crystallized in her veins as the air seethed with too much power.

  “Emi.”

  Shiro’s voice, strangely calm, broke through her fear. His attention was fixed on Izanagi. Dragon and raven launched at the sun god and power exploded in a cyclone of shadows and lightning. Painfully hot wind blasted over her and Shiro.

  He raised his right arm in front of her, and she thought he was blocking her way forward. Then he spoke again, still focused on the unfolding battle.

  “It’s time, Emi. They need my help.”

  Confusion flitted through her before she noticed the last loop of the onenju gleaming around his wrist. Lightheadedness replaced her confusion and she stiffened her spine, swallowing hard. “Isn’t Izanagi undefeatable? We should try to escape.”

  “Nuboko is nearby, or Yumei would have already fled.” Shiro turned to her, and her breath caught at the ancient, fearless calm in his eyes—the calm of battle, of a hardened warrior. “Remove the onenju, Emi.”

  A shiver ran through her. Shiro wasn’t asking her to remove it.

  Inari was commanding her to remove it.

  As another blast of magic sent a wave of debris raining down, she took hold of his wrist. She needed to hurry. She had to remove the curse so Shiro could join the fight.

  But if she wasn’t absolutely committed, she would fail and the curse would kill him.

  She curled her fingers under the smooth, cool beads. Her heart hammered, breaking a little more with each frantic beat. The pain grew until it was strangling her.

  Already she was losing Shiro to Inari. Already he had turned away from her. Once she removed these beads, Shiro would be lost forever, devoured completely by Inari’s flames. Her playful kitsune, who had kissed her, who had fought for her, who had told her he feared losing her more than anything … he would be gone.

  Her hand on the beads trembled and she squeezed her eyes shut. Why did removing the beads feel like delivering the killing blow to the man she loved? But she had to do it, and not only because he needed access to his full power.

  Because he had asked. Because this was what he wanted.

  She let out a quivering breath, unable to open her eyes and see more of Inari than Shiro in him. Shiro was already fading out of her reach.

  Somewhere in the trees, magic thundered, and a wave of hot air and dirt rushed over her. She had to do this. Yumei and Susano needed Shiro’s—no, Inari’s help.

  She lifted her gaze to his, and she didn’t see Inari. She didn’t see Shiro either. She saw the man who had chained her heart in bonds she couldn’t escape, who had awoken passion in her she’d never felt before, who had nurtured strength she hadn’t known she possessed. She needed him. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.

  Tears spilled down her cheeks. “I can’t do it,” she choked. “It will fail and kill you.”

  “You have to.”

  “I can’t.” She swallowed a sob. “If I have even the smallest doubt, it will fail. I can’t …”

  Shiro stepped in front of her, his wrist still in her grip. He raised his free hand to her face, his fingers hesitating. His thumb brushed her jaw in a featherlight touch.

  “I am who I am,” he murmured. “I will always be Shiro, just as I was always Inari.”

  She shook her head. If that was true, why had he walked away from her?

  His eyes burned through her. “You won’t lose me, Emi.”

  With an unsteady hand, she touched her fingertips to his cheek and whispered, “Do you promise?”

  Do you promise? It seemed so long ago that he had asked her that same question. Standing in the Shirayuri Shrine courtyard, drenched in blood and swaying on his feet, he’d told her she would forget him someday. I’ll never forget you, she had told him. I’ll remember you to my last day.

  Do you promise?

  “Yes, I promise,” he said.

  A tremor coursed through her body. Following the slight pressure of her hand on his cheek, he leaned down. She tilted her face up and closed her eyes. With his hand on her cheek, fingers spanning the side of her face, he kissed her.

  Pain twined with pleasure, sorrow with love. As his lips moved with hers, her grief stuttered and faded, overcome by the electric need that passed between them like an ever-growing current. Distaste didn’t taint his touch. Disinterest didn’t sour his kiss. His longing, his passion, reflected hers. And her pain reflected through him, sadness and regret echoing back.

  With his mouth on hers, with his kiss and his touch, she couldn’t believe he didn’t love her. No matter what he had said, what he had done, there was no deceit in this moment, in this naked vulnerability th
ey shared.

  Their mouths still locked together, she pulled the onenju down his wrist.

  It slid off without resistance. For an instant, she held a single loop of beads, inane and harmless. Then the power of the broken curse exploded out of it.

  The force hurled her backward, but Shiro grabbed her and crushed her against him as wind howled around them. Fire erupted, joining the raging gale, but she scarcely felt the warmth. The spiraling inferno grew higher and higher.

  Shiro’s arms loosened and he released her. She staggered back, desperately seeking his face. Sparks danced between them, and their eyes met. In his stare, she could see only ancient battle calm, only primal cunning.

  Only Inari.

  The firestorm sucked inward, drawing toward him like a whirlpool drinking in the tides. Flames rushed past her and he vanished into the roaring blaze. As the heat grew, she threw an arm over her face and retreated on tottering legs.

  The fire shuddered—then the red and orange flames flashed to white and blue. The inferno solidified into a familiar shape.

  The kyubi no kitsune, the beastly specter she had seen so many times in her nightmares.

  Flesh and fire blended seamlessly into a creature that was both and neither, his white fur rippling like pale flames. Despite his size, his vulpine body was lean and sleek, his head elegant with a narrow snout and slanted ears. Behind him, nine fiery tails fanned out. Crimson eyes, solid and unbroken by pupils or sclera, blazed with ferocity, and the markings on his forehead and cheeks glowed almost as brightly.

  The air around him rippled and shivered like the hottest desert. Those ruby eyes gazed at her for a heartbeat longer, indecipherable and inhuman, then the nine-tailed fox spun on agile paws and vaulted across the clearing in bounding leaps.

  Emi stumbled back, one hand flattened to her chest as though the pressure might ease the throbbing torment in her heart.

  He had promised she wouldn’t lose him, but she feared his vow was already broken.

 
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